Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | The Parrot of Carolina

Monday, June 26, 2017

CATESBY OBVIOUSLY had a fond admiration for this “Small Parrot” of Carolina, which may be why this watercolor wins the prize for best combination of most beautiful and most pleasing to look at in this exhibit. But, why is it so satisfying? Why does it immediately make you happy?

With Catesby, of course, there’s always more than one answer because he does so many things well and ties everything together so fluidly. There is also, especially in his watercolors, an authenticity of technique that draws you into his unique world, and an artistic expression that distinguishes his work from all other naturalist painters.

This royal depiction of a parrot combines Catesby’s finest skills: ultra clear draftsmanship, superb compositional organization, meticulous painterly details, exactness and harmony of colors, and the ability to capture the inner spirit of his subject. But the question still remains: how did he apply these skills to this painting? What was he thinking?

The Parrot of Carolina and the Cypress of America, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor, body color, and pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps the main thing that strikes you about this piece is its simplicity. As ornamental as it looks, nothing is overdone or overemphasized. In fact, its sense of understatement gives it a nobility and calm which are, in turn, echoed in the neutral tones and gorgeous, complementary colors (that feature a multitude of shades of green).

All of these carefully chosen elements are topped off with orange and yellow highlights that vivify the head, set off the wing,  and give the parrot a golden glow that fades into the background. A favorite feature of mine is the tiny golden “umbrella” atop the wing which sparkles like a reflection of light in a liquid drop.

To balance all this softness and delicacy, Catesby extends the branch, and even the tail feather, beyond the edge of the canvas. This effect anchors the composition and gives it a stability which “holds” all the calmness floating in the rest of the picture. The branch is also painted in a soft brown so as not to overplay its firmness or contrast too strongly with the bird, who is clearly the star of this show.

Meanwhile, there’s a slight sense of excitement about the moment because we’re not sure whether the parrot has just landed and noticed us as it did, or whether it’s about to fly away because we have come upon it. In either case, it seems to be, almost vaingloriously, granting us the chance to admire its majesty and beauty.

Can you imagine seeing this creature (which became extinct a century ago) in the “old growth forests along our rivers and swamps?” What a fantastic sight that must have been.

Thank you, Mister Catesby, for sharing it.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe